ToM Best of 2013
Did any album capture the contradictions of 2013 better than Acid Rap? The second release by 20-year-old Chicagoan wunderkind Chance the Rapper landed on numerous lists of the best albums of the year, despite being a freely released digital download that fits uneasily alongside more traditional releases like Vampire Weekend’s (admittedly excellent) Modern Vampires of the City. It arrived in a year when new technologies (such as Netflix and its acclaimed original productions like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black) upset the old-line media and showed what could be done through new channels of distribution.
But Chance’s mixtape also tapped into the euphoria and pathos of a country that saw both major advances for social justice and the continued rampage of the Far Right. Even as the nation rejoiced at the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking vote for marriage equality and Bill de Blasio’s historic campaign against economic inequality in New York — and debated Edward Snowden’s bombshell revlations about government surveillance — horrific gun violence plagued Newtown and Chicago, while the Tea Party nearly drove America to the brink of financial ruin. Meanwhile, Chance’s lyrics shuttled as anxiously from ecstasy to agony as a sophomore acidhead reeling from a particularly tumultuous trip.
Acid Rap is a rarity in hip-hop for many reasons—not the least of which is the originality and audacity of this very young artist, who has exploded from obscurity to national notoriety in a very short time, leveraging a free mixtape to sell out shows in cities far from his native Chicago. In Acid Rap one finds a voice nimble and eccentric enough to capture the tragedy of life in Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods at the same time that it exults in the psychoactive effects of a vast pharmacopia, ranging from LSD to mushrooms to ecstasy—unfamiliar territory for a musical genre more often steeped in tropes about crack and the chronic.
Of course, all of this sociopolitical context gives short shrift the sonic inventiveness of the music itself. Acid Rap jumbles up the smooth textures of classic R&B with a distinctly scattered and eclectic sensibility, svelte pianos and guitars bumping up against weird sound effects and frenetic vocal eruptions. Chance’s own verbal style is a revelation, eschewing macho theatrics for a neurotic voice that mixes the zaniness of Lee Perry with the nasal, rapid-fire delivery of Eminem. He is not afraid to be smart and literate as he paints the reality of broken families and neighborhoods; like Das Racist, he’s able to leaven his intellectualism and seriousness with whimsy and a genuine sense of humor. The result is an album that ably moves from easy-going party tracks like “Favorite Song,” a collaboration with Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) to wistful commemorations about family like “Cocoa Butter Kisses” and perceptive meditations on drugs and addiction like “Lost” and “Pusha Man.”
Little on this stellar mixtape, though, reaches the heights of the opening track, “So Good (Good Ass Intro).” Background singers launch the album with the declaration “Even better than I was the last time, baby,” and Chance soon enters, saying “We back, and we back,” before free-associating about keeping “a tab on my exes, and some X on my tongue” and “Leno’s hair” and “Fallon’s spleen” and “how many lab partners have I fucked since I got suspended?”; an exuberant piano riff frames the hectic patois of Chance’s signature “Neh-neh-neh-neh.” It all sounds like an America at last emerging from a decade or so of war, violence, recession, and generalized calamity and insanity, funny and confident despite remaining beset with problems. Not unlike Chance the Rapper and his cherished Chicago.
Rap’s just made me anxious, and acid made me crazy
Them squares just made me looser and that wax just made me lazy
And I still wrote this song, and I’m gonna make another
If you ever actually hit me better watch out for my brother
Get a watch with all that glitters, come in clutters, different colors
Ben-a-Baller, Benford, butlers, chauffeurs, hit a stain-er, did I stutter
Did a ton of drugs and did better than all my alma mater…